Lest you think everything is peachy-keen here on the food front here, let me clarify one thing: some foods that I consider staples are frustratingly hard to find, not to mention painfully expensive once you do find them. Foremost among these items is cheese, which remains a sore subject for me. However, what I’d like to talk about today is peanut butter, something I’m sure many American ex-pats miss as much as I do
When I first arrived in Japan and was feeling particularly homesick, I ventured to the grocery store in search of some familiar, trusty PB. What I ended up buying was “peanut cream” (ピーナッツクリーム), a pale, gooey, heavily sweetened and cornstarch-thickened affair vaguely reminiscent of wood glue in both color and texture. This was a mistake I would not repeat.
Peanuts themselves are also easy to come by, as they are a popular snack to pair with beer (as an aside, they are especially delicious when mixed with the small, spicy rice crackers called kaki no tane, or “persimmon seeds”). But still, peanuts do not equal peanut butter. That is, unless one is inclined to spend an hour pounding roasted peanuts into paste with a suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestle), which I did briefly consider.
During the first week or two of my stay here, I eventually wandered into an “import” store, which sold everything from American baking powder to Italian pasta to Thai coconut milk. As I wandered the aisles, ogling overpriced German chocolates and Spanish olives, I came across something truly extraordinary. Lo and behold, arranged lovingly in wicker baskets underneath a shelf of ¥700 French jams, lay small jars of Skippy, of both the creamy and “super chunk” varieties. And they were on sale, to boot! I was shell-shocked, ecstatic. Now, here’s the killer: each jar was about ¥300 (roughly $3.50). But they were on sale! And normally would have cost at least ¥400! Did I buy one? You bet. My only regret was that I didn’t buy more than one, because I finished that jar in an embarrassingly short span of time.
Now, every day I ask myself, “Oh, why didn’t you savor it more judiciously? Why didn’t you just buy four jars at once?” Ultimately, though, I’ve decided that agonizing over peanut butter while in Japan is just plain foolish. Here I am, in a country with its own vibrant and varied food culture, and I’m upset that I can’t find cheap peanut butter? True, it can be a comforting reminder of home, but I’ve concluded that it’s simply not worth the trouble, nor the monetary expense. Besides, who needs peanut butter when there’s kinako cream? Unlike “peanut cream”, this is a wonderful product, and a fairly new addition to the world of Japanese snack foods. It’s a smooth, buttery puree of kinako (roasted soy bean powder) and other flavorings, like chocolate or black beans. I’m quite partial to the black bean variety – the marriage of sweet, toasty notes from the kinako with the earthiness of the beans actually resembles the flavor profile of peanut butter. A generous smear of this delightful stuff on a crisp, juicy Fuji apple makes a perfect afternoon snack. Then again, if I happen to see Skippy again, would I buy it? Of course, but I won’t hold my breath.